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July 3, 1997

Hugh McGuire, the author of this essay, is a research consultant in West Hartford who works with small and start-up businesses. In his Career Directions Workshop -- which he successfully demonstrated to the Connecticut Labor Department -- he organizes unemployed people into small teams with a common focus and leads them through the process of analyzing the business market to find unserved or under-served needs for which they can position themselves.

Teamwork for Educational and Economic Progress

How a country educates its children says as much about its perception of the world and the future as any economic or political policy. In the United States, we are facing a major crisis in education. The 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey revealed that approximately 50 percent of individuals over the age of 16 occupied the two lowest levels of literacy, comprehension, and quantitative proficiencies. Even more disturbing, most of these people did not recognize their own functional illiteracy. It is not surprising that those falling in the two lowest categories also occupied the lowest socioeconomic categories. Today, as in the past, socioeconomic status is the primary predictor of educational achievement.

Education in the United States has always been oriented toward the middle-class value system. We tend to locate the responsibility and motivation for obtaining an education in the individual. We aim education toward the individuals in a classroom, test them as individuals, and hold them accountable as individuals. Such an emphasis is appropriate for middle- and upper-class people who come from families with cultural values and opportunities that motivate students to want to learn. For lower-class and working-class kids, the schools are their primary source of education. We may decry Europe's rigid class structure, but the European countries have been much more enlightened about orienting school programs toward the values and needs of the students they are educating. Because we refuse to recognize that the class structure of the U.S. is just as rigid, we are providing no means of creating meaningful lives within a given class position.

The fact of the matter is that working-class and lower-class people are not as effective in competing as individuals as their middle- and upper-class counterparts are. Why couldn't schools organize students into teams of three to five and grade the teams rather than the individuals? I used this approach once in teaching an urban and regional economics class. I offered the students the option of organizing into teams of three and collaborating to write a term paper. I told them that I expected to see a paper that looked like it had been written by three people and I would give all three the grade that the paper deserved. About half the class took me up on the offer. The papers submitted by the teams were unquestionably superior to the papers submitted by individuals in terms of the complexity of the question addressed, the sophistication of their methodology, the lengths to which they went to obtain data and information, and the quality of the writing.

The team approach can also be used to prepare students for changes they will face in the global economy and the social structure. We do very little to teach entrepreneurialism in the middle schools and the high schools in the U. S. We allow students to seek low-paying part-time jobs instead of teaching them how to identify economic opportunities and encouraging them to start businesses of their own. It is possible to create model business enterprises that are run and managed by high school students.

When kids in high school are taught how to start and run small businesses, combining traditional skills training with an entrepreneurial perspective, they begin to see a vast range of possibilities. It wouldn't cost very much to set up, for example, a store where the kids could solicit business and, under the supervision of a teacher, apply the skills they were learning in shop class. They could run and manage the store. Over the four years they were in high school, they could cover every aspect of operating a business from advertising, repairing equipment, and dealing with customers to keeping the books and planning for growth.

By creating such a business, students would gain confidence that they could accomplish something by themselves. If they were also encouraged to work as teams, they could learn the effectiveness of forming partnerships and cooperative enterprises. Such enterprises could build neighborhood enthusiasm and encouragement. If they began by advertising among all the parents in the school system, I bet they would get an enthusiastic response. They could also get support from the local chamber of commerce, the local economic development agency, and other municipal and state and community resources. And eventually such a approach could be expanded to adult schools as well.

Analyzing market opportunities does not require high levels of education. It requires the ability to ask "what" in a systematic and orderly way. A retail business can be initiated from a blanket on a street corner; a manufacturing business can begin on one's living room floor. All the organizations that purportedly assist people in initiating business enterprises focus on the question "how." Most people, especially working-class and lower-income people, don't know where to begin. They don't know "what" kind of business to initiate, and they have no resources to use to find out.

If kids are taught that they can analyze a situation to identify needs they can fill, and if they are taught how to cooperate with each other in pursuing goals, then they will seek out opportunities and have both the confidence and the education to take the initiative. We decry youth gangs, but the fact of the matter is that many of them are creating businesses, illicit businesses but businesses nonetheless. Why can't we use the natural inclinations of working-class and lower-class kids to support each other by combining and leveraging their resources in positive ways? By refusing to accept responsibility for providing our children with the skills they need for the future, we are abandoning the working and lower classes. That is the saddest indictment that can be made of any country.

--Copyright Hugh McGuire 1997.

(Hugh Mcguire can be reached at

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